6.9.14 The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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First Read: 429/429.

Like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Goblin Emperor is about an unwanted royal kid of the “wrong” ethnicity (in this case, goblin rather than elf) who is snatched up and brought to the seat of an empire because someone needs to get on the throne. Maia, the son of one of the emperor’s numerous discarded wives, has been raised in the middle of nowhere with very little company aside from his abusive guardian Setheris. He has no siblings to fight for the honor of emperorhood, and is plunked right down on the throne when the entire royal family is killed in an airship sabotage.

Considering the the racial and political biases he faces, and the lack of experience socializing generally, and his spotty training by Setheris (who, obviously, deeply resents his role of guardian to a seemingly irrelevant prince), Maia’s progress in learning the trade of ruling an empire goes surprisingly smoothly. Maia endures what bumps there are and makes some really canny decisions and develops a backbone with apparent ease.

It went a little too smoothly for me at first–I actually put it down halfway for a couple of months, which was really surprising to me. Katherine Addison is a new form of Sarah Monette, who is one of my favorite authors, but one I recommend gingerly, because most of her books under that name can wear about every trigger warning under the sun. Most of her books are also incredibly emotionally dynamic–this book took me a while to get into I think because it lacks the crescendos and passions of Monette’s past novels (and it happened that those were things I loved about the other books).

But the superficial similarity of premise to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms prompted me to pick it up again! And then I read 250 pages in a day and finished it, and it was a warm, kind, encouraging book that I really deeply enjoyed and would definitely definitely reread.

CW: There’s one scene of violence/ritual suicide and there are fairly mild but inescapable elements of (mostly past) abuse.

Otherwise it is like sitting on a slightly consternated pillow of political intrigue and budding community, with the refreshing addition of political optimism. It also reminded me, in the gist and in a few very particular particulars, of a more gentle, less canny King of Attolia–which is also by one of my FAVORITES EVER.

This was just a REALLY NICE BOOK, and I felt good after reading it. Actually I still feel good from it two days later. That’s always a mark of a worthwhile real.

6.9.14 The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Image

First Read: 429/429.

Like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Goblin Emperor is about an unwanted royal kid of the “wrong” ethnicity (in this case, goblin rather than elf) who is snatched up and brought to the seat of an empire because someone needs to get on the throne. Maia, the son of one of the emperor’s numerous discarded wives, has been raised in the middle of nowhere with very little company aside from his abusive guardian Setheris. He has no siblings to fight for the honor of emperorhood, and is plunked right down on the throne when the entire royal family is killed in an airship sabotage.

Considering the the racial and political biases he faces, and the lack of experience socializing generally, and his spotty training by Setheris (who, obviously, deeply resents his role of guardian to a seemingly irrelevant prince), Maia’s progress in learning the trade of ruling an empire goes surprisingly smoothly. Maia endures what bumps there are and makes some really canny decisions and develops a backbone with apparent ease.

It went a little too smoothly for me at first–I actually put it down halfway for a couple of months, which was really surprising to me. Katherine Addison is a new form of Sarah Monette, who is one of my favorite authors, but one I recommend gingerly, because most of her books under that name can wear about every trigger warning under the sun. Most of her books are also incredibly emotionally dynamic–this book took me a while to get into I think because it lacks the crescendos and passions of Monette’s past novel (and it happened that those were something I loved about the other books).

But the superficial similarity of premise to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms prompted me to pick it up again! And then I read 250 pages in a day and finished it, and it was a warm, kind, encouraging book that I really deeply enjoyed and would definitely definitely reread.

CW: There’s one scene of violence/ritual suicide and there are fairly mild but inescapable elements of (mostly past) abuse. I believe there’s also a somewhat gruesome description of the royal family at their funeral but I skipped over it.

Otherwise it is like sitting on a slightly consternated pillow of political intrigue and budding community, with the refreshing addition of political optimism. It also reminded me, in the gist and in a few very particular particulars, of a more gentle, less canny King of Attolia–which is also by one of my FAVORITES EVER.

This was just a REALLY NICE BOOK, and I felt good after reading it. Actually I still feel good from it two days later. That’s always a mark of a worthwhile read.

8.30.13 The Sea of Trolls

[library] The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer : 450/450

I loved The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and House of the Scorpion, but I tried to read this book when it came out and I just didn’t get anywhere. Definitely went better with a decade of Norse scholar cohabitation, Marvel fandom, saga-reading and medieval history under the belt. It’s a little more mid-grade than the other two Farmer books I’ve read, but still painstakingly well researched, including the language and lots of treats with regards to mythology and history.

The story is basically that Jack is a Saxon bard-in-training, he and his little sister get abducted by Vikings, and then Jack has to run off to Jotunheim to drink from the well of awesome water at the foot of Yggdrasil to save sister Lucy from an evil half-troll queen. His main companion is a girl named Thorgil who has a bad temper and a bad past and is a tiny Berserker.

Even though Jack becomes friends with people everywhere he goes I like that Farmer doesn’t compromise on the “these are violent cultures funded on raiding and that isn’t going to change just because we like you” issue. I like all the research tidbits. I am more wary about the religious aspects, but also find them incredibly appropriate to Jack’s perspective.

It’s all a little spiritual for me, in that religion is a major theme of the book, and I tend not to read a lot of books where that is the case. On the other hand, some people who are not like me would certainly find them objectionable for the opposite reason: because the book is related by a Christian, but gives proof in the plot that pagan Norse religion is real, and ultimately concludes that all religion is real within the umbrella of the World Tree. That is pretty fabulous, and unusual.

And it’s a good illustration of how religion works in that part of the world 800-1000 C.E. My favorite part of Njal’s Saga is when a local chief decides he will adopt Christianity if and only if he can have St. Michael as his guardian angel. He’s not fussed at all about anything but which cool stuff he gets for being in which religion. IT MAKES ME SO HAPPY.

Also Thorgil is a violent little beast and learns to chill out through magic water and I don’t know if I love that or not. I mean, she’s still a warrior and all. Probably it’s good, probably it’s just like taking your damn magic meds, but I am not sure. Gender gender gender. I always want it to get pushed FARTHER than it is.

Alongside this book I recommend:

A Companion to Wolves by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, for wolf-soul-bonding warrior dudes, gay muscular guy sex, really different and interesting use of the same amount of research. [TW]

Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones for more kids dealing with Norse Things, and also the best Loki ever.

Sabriel by Garth Nix for young people in snow having adventures and really good world building.

Njal’s Saga for proof that Vikings &c are really portrayed as that vulgar, violent, and chill about being killed horribly.

NOT AMERICAN GODS, BECAUSE

okay don’t expect this sentence to end friendly-like

I HATE IT. It has zombie wife and bad god name puns and that woman who eats men with her vagina and nihilism. Blah blah, six hundred pages and all I get is a chafing dissatisfaction.

That said, Njal’s Saga is not about anything particularly nice, either. It’s about a family feud and it ends badly. Lots of people die. But it’s GREAT. There are lots of politics, and people frowning and conniving and some good wives and some bad wives and some brave fellows and weaselly fellows. And it’s so matter-of-fact that it’s hard to be bothered by anything. It’s less everything is worthlessssss, however, and more, well I guess things went that way this time! GOOD OLD NJAL’S SAGA.

2/7/13: No Man’s Land from Somewhere Beneath Those Waves

This story gets a separate post because it was very upsetting and I needed more space to think about it. I do NOT think these thoughts are entirely complete, and I may need to read it again and think it out further.

TW: gore, death, gender violence, genital mutilation, homophobia, misogyny, warfare

No Man’s Land is an extremely disturbing body swap story. I DO NOT recommend reading it if you have any triggers related to war or gender violence.

In the Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy” (3×15), an American WWII soldier wakes up as a Japanese combatant, and is made suddenly, jarringly aware of the equal humanity of his enemies.  If it were about not just nationalism, but the consequences of misogynistic, hypermasculine military culture, this would be the result. 

No Man’s Land opens with the main character’s horrifying discovery that he is in the enemy’s body, being called the enemy’s name, Cluny, and his own body is lying violently dead not far away. He is taken back to the (enemy) camp and looked over for injury, trying not to give himself away and in near shock over the difference in perspective and the loss of his body. The horrific center of the story is when he goes to take a shower and finds the scars on Cluny’s breasts and genitals. Repeat warning: this is very graphic and very upsetting. I reached this story while on a train, and nearly put it down.   

The narrator is honest with himself. He admits—readily, even—that this atrocity might have been committed by one or some of the men whose lives he used to protect with his own, whose lives he feared for when he woke up dead. Perhaps the realization is not so difficult for him to face because Cluny isn’t the only victim. She is not the only one who has died in some degree, and she is not the only one who has been raped by enemy soldiers.

The story is an argument, not against the use of women combatants, but against the rampant misogyny and homophobia that are made “acceptable” in hypermasculine and hyperviolent cultures. It is about the universal costs of war. It is about dehumanizing the enemy and seeing enemy bodies as disposible—not just to fight, but to use and to wound—because sadism and hatred are not unlikely consequences of training someone to kill for a living, and putting them in front of someone else’s gun.

Playing “who gets it worst?” and parsing out exactly what this story says for gender is difficult, and not something I’m sure that I’m fully prepared to do yet. My thought is that Monette balances everything very well. The more brutal sexual violence falls on Cluny, and her self is killed before the story begins. I think the emphasis on a woman as the object of sexual violence is important, because women usually are. But at the same time, between the two of them, her identity is the one that survives. Her name is Miriam Cluny, and people still love her. 

Though the narrator lives, his life is over, his body is more fully destroyed than Cluny’s, and he hasn’t escaped. He is in the wrong body, a hurt body, that he can’t stop knowing belongs to someone who hasn’t died right, trapped on a side of a war that’s no more terrible than the one he started out on. He’s not a survivor yet, because he’s lost his life and he’s still walking into death. (A note: the main character does not cease to think of himself as male just because he is in a new body that belonged previously to a woman. Many writers don’t understand the difference between body and identity, so I appreciate this marked distinction.) 

The male narrator doesn’t have a name. He is not anyone anymore. It isn’t that Cluny’s body has been given to him to use, somehow—she’s not less than him. There’s no doubt of Cluny’s strength or worth, even as she dies in spirit. It’s that his self has been given to her life. He steps into it, frightened and horrified and traumatized, and he doesn’t even try to protest or strike out. He just takes her place on her side of the line, all of the motions familiar, all of the pains familiar—because there is no end, and there’s nowhere else to go.

2/7/13: Somewhere Beneath Those Waves

A LONG BREAK HAPPENED because our rabbits ate the coaxial cable that blesses our house with internet. Um, it’s replaced now. So, more Sarah Monette:

SOMEWHERE BENEATH THOSE WAVES by Sarah Monette: 327/327

TWs listed seperately for the stories that need them.

Fiddleback Ferns is a very short SF story about alien plants—I appreciate the quickly established idea that pop culture knowledge is not irrelevant. Also, a woman who knows when to act. Frequent SM feature, which I do appreciate.

Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland is (SM says in her notes) her best-known and most successful short story, a bitter twist on Tam Lin where the mortal who’s been seduced is a woman, her mortal spouse has no real emotional clout, and she’s still smart enough to understand the devestating fact that to remain with the elf queen will kill her. That she has the strength of character to choose to give up bliss to save her self and her life isn’t romantic—but it is admirably, wrenchingly true. The same strain of sometimes embittered pragmatism is also visible in Doctrine of Labyrinth’s Mehitabel Parr (one of my favorite women characters ever).

Night Train: Heading West is a poem, about death and unwanted journeys. 

The Seance at Chisholm End features a very ugly medium and his control spirit, who is his dead twin brother; another entirely excellent unromantic, sensible, and cool-headed woman; her employer, a rich, nasty woman who is constantly looking up ghosts; and her employer’s victim, who very quickly notices when a real medium gives it real access to the woman it loathes. This story has a happy ending, for the people who deserve it.

The next story, No Man’s Land, gets VERY BIG TRIGGER WARNINGS: gore, death, extreme misogyny, homophobia, past torture, rape, and severe genital mutilation. This one is getting a separate post. I found it extremely difficult to read and I have no particular triggers related to any of the content.

National Geographic on Assignment: Mermaids of the West Coast is a brutal, brittle one-page drabble about how we fuck up magical things in our need to interrogate and peer at them.

The next two stories, A Night in Electric Squidland (tw: gore) and Imposters (tw: suicide, mental illness, homelessness), are both about paranormal Tennessee buddy-cops called Jamie and Mick. Jamie is a big Black bisexual (and MONOGAMOUS he points out firmly) ex-bouncer with a wife who hates his buddy-cop partner. Mick is a skinny white super-gay psychic. In the first, Mick rescues Jamie, and in the second, Jamie rescues Mick. Their dynamic is really frustratingly excellent, because I WANT it to be romantic, but even without sex it can’t be romantic without tripping over the monogamous line Jamie establishes for himself. OH IT IS GREAT AND I WANT MORE. Oh, but what are they about? Squidland is about a notorious supernatural S&M club that seems to be killing people, and Imposters is about mind possession and mysterious suicides, but actually it’s about homelessness and how we all fucking suck.

Straw is a brief post-alien, post-disaster story (tw: death, violence, familial violence, possession), skirting around the memories of the two scarred, crippled people most affected: the man who is “rewritten” with an alien identity and massacres unspecified numbers of people, including his own family, and the girl who stops him.

Absent from Felicity—Horatio/Hamlet, Horatio/Fortinbras. T. Post-canon.

The World Without Sleep is the only Kyle Murchison Booth story in the collection. Booth, suffering from severe insomnia, accidentally walks into a different version of the city. He finds stone angels, blood-scented vampires with flat faces and triangle mouths, not quite laughable goblins, and lying shadows. It’s very odd and not like the other Booth stories, but these are my favorite vampires ever, and one of my favorite Booths.

The last story in the book is After the Dragon, which is simply, frankly, and poignantly a fantasy setting for physical disability and the pain of survival. TW: severe injury, post-recovery.

2/2/13: Somewhere Beneath Those Waves

SOMEWHERE BENEATH THOSE WAVES by Sarah Monette: 205/318

tw: transmisogyny, death, murder, bad families, suicide

So first I finished “Amante Doreé,” which is about the courtesan in AU not-USA, where the south and west are colonies of France and the north is Spanish. Below are spoilers, which also include trigger warnings.

Somewhere Beneath Those Waves Was Her Home is about shitty men, selkies, figureheads, and freedom. Darkness, As A Bride is about a clockwork virgin sacrifice. Katabasis: Seraphic Trains is like a cross between Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link (I will tell you which I prefer, it is Kelly Link), about a mysterious and ruthless city, the death of a young failed poet, and the girl who eventually figures out she doesn’t want him back from the dead after all. Three Letters From The Queen of Elfland is about empty marriages and hot lesbian sex with elves that isn’t any use because you don’t want to be eaten alive by your lover’s passion for you (see also Monette’s Elegy for a Demon Lover). Now: the Seance at Chisholm Place.

Some of the stories are stronger than others but the whole set is interesting, atmospheric, fully fleshed and full of ideas that sit comfortably in their own skins (if not in the reader’s).

It’s about political murder, but also HEY LOOK! A TRANS CHARACTER! She turns out to be a trans woman, but of course this is not especially easy (HAHAHA LIKE IT IS EVER EASY) in this setting. She doesn’t get killed and nothing vile happens, but the guy she likes is not interested in her body type and even though he’s not nasty and doesn’t betray her and actually helps her save her own life in the end, they don’t get together. There are a couple really heart-seizingy upsetting moments in the course of her realizing that they won’t. Also not a great story for anyone who can’t cope with bad comings-out of any level.

1/31/13: Somewhere Beneath Those Waves

SOMEWHERE BENEATH THOSE WAVES by Sarah Monette: 94/318

TW: Death, gore, alcohol abuse

Sarah Monette is one of my absolutely favorite authors in the whole world. She writes absolutely terrible things happening to a lot of complicated people, but (if you can deal with the content in any mode) it’s made manageable, thought-provoking, and vindicating by her compassion, brains, and unrelentingly feminist approaches to gender and character.

Her Doctrine of Labyrinths novels (TWs for rape, insanity, unhealthy relationships) include complex but not convoluted ideas about magic, gorgeously interesting cultural landscapes, tricky, difficult, fiercely loveable characters, and ultimately a hopeful conclusion that is a big old relief. The main characters are a really horrible, charismatic, wounded person who keeps trying to be better than he is and can’t figure out why his closest companion won’t leave because he’s bad at doing it—and that companion, who is completely trapped in a terrible situation, is smart and brave and loyal and not very okay a lot of the time.

A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men are basically about gay vikings bonded to giant wolves who fight trolls. (TW: violence, explicit sex, homophobia, more more than usually attached to big dogs.) It’s also, SURPRISE!, about gender expectations, leadership, negotiation and sacrifice, the complexities of physical/romantic/sexually political relationships, sexuality, human perception of the monstrous, and also it features an awkward sort of poly relationship and some family leaders who are men-born-women, SO THAT’S COOL.

The Bone Key (and a few other stories) are about Kyle Murchison Booth, an awkward looking museum archaeologist with touch-phobia, a stammer, and a weird tendency to run into the occult. Basically it’s like M.R. James plus H.P. Lovecraft minus horrific racism plus queerness. (TW for past abuse, death, scary shit.) THESE STORIES ARE GREAT, and many of them are VERY different from one another, and the more you read the more horrible Booth’s life looks, except he always just keeps going and doing all the stuff no one else notices anyway! Except for his occasional companions, among them the IMPECCABLE Miss Claudia Coburn.

Somewhere Beneath These Waves is a compilation of previously uncompiled short stories, and it gives very quickly that Sarah Monette REALLY LIKES TO WRITE ABOUT TERRIBLE THINGS (AND DEATH). Mixed into the creepy and the grim are moments of unrelenting emotion, so I choked up a couple times reading at work yesterday. So far: murder mysteries, dead brothers lost at war, bad families, homicidal kings, dream tigers, the victims of the Trojans picking up their lives. Right now I am in the middle of “Amante Doree´,” which is about a French-American courtesan, a scruffy Englishman, Louisiane, and the death of a pretender to the title of Louis XVIII.